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'Madam's Family': Not-So-Risque Message In a Brothel

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 30, 2004; Page C01

"Family viewing" certainly has changed over the years, as should be a shock to nobody. Tomorrow night's CBS movie is about a family, all right -- three generations of women who operated a famous whorehouse in the red-light district of New Orleans. It's not a movie to warm the cockles of your heart; in fact, it's more of a cockle cooler.

Based -- loosely, perhaps -- on a true situation, "The Madam's Family: The Truth About Canal Street Brothel," at 9 on Channel 9, is not a movie that appeals to prurient interests by any means. In fact, the brothel in question could almost be located on Sesame Street instead of Canal Street. Of course, this is network television, where such risque subjects still tend to be homogenized so pressure groups won't squawk and FCC Chairman Michael Powell doesn't blow a gasket.

Family affairs: Ellen Burstyn, left, and Dominique Swain are a grandmother and granddaughter whose New Orleans brothel is targeted by the FBI. (Patti Perret -- Cbs)

Mama, a randy granny who operates the brothel as a kind of sacred family tradition, also serves as the guardian at the gate. "Nobody gets past me unless they're respectable," she says of the classy clientele. In the film, granny's daughter and granddaughter both work at the brothel, and they're all so jolly about it, you'd think they were baking cookies for the church bazaar.

This is a movie in which the operators of a whorehouse are the good guys and the villains are the FBI, who -- according to the film -- waste precious time and the taxpayers' money trying to close the joint down. Actually, the house of ill repute is less important to them than a businessman of ill repute who's been indulging in white-collar crimes and who hangs out at the brothel. Unfortunately, a zealot who heads the FBI's district office wants to close the house down, too.

It seems virtually un-American to go after prostitution in New Orleans, but in recent years cops there have cracked down on Mardi Gras shenanigans and even started arresting people for exposing themselves during the festivities. It's hard to decide which is more decadent -- the hanky-panky or some politicians' campaigns to put the kibosh on it.

"The Madam's Family" is made up of illustrious actresses who appear to be enjoying their roles. Ellen Burstyn, wearing a black wig that makes her look like the emcee of a Halloween horror show, plays Tommie, a local legend who sees to it that the clients don't get unnecessarily rowdy or weird and who wants the brothel to be a successful, well-run business (perhaps with a good health plan for the employees -- we're not told about that).

Annabella Sciorra plays her daughter, Jeanette, who is comfortable downstairs with the books or upstairs with the customers. Her daughter, Monica, played as a fragile blonde by Dominique Swain, is the youngest and sexiest of the group. Monica has a baby girl whose father has run off; she does her best to keep the baby away from the brothel. She names the child Nevaeh -- "heaven" spelled backward.

What's this movie about -- family ties? To a degree, but it's more about the wages of hypocrisy. The men who patronize the brothel are one big happy family themselves when things are going well, but they run and hide when Granny and her offspring need help. We are told that the clientele includes some of the city's most prominent and upstanding citizens, something that will be a factor in the ending when it looks like all hope is lost -- the brothel shuttered, the women facing jail and Monica's baby seized by the state on the grounds that Mom is an "unfit mother."

The fact that two pairs of writers are listed in the opening credits may help explain why the movie tends to wander off on tangents, losing its narrative momentum. Burstyn is hampered by that absurd wig, but Sciorra projects strength and spirit as her daughter. Swain resists any urge to overdo pathos in playing 21-year-old Monica, who has the most to lose if the brothel closes, yet is determined that eventually she will better herself and not have to stay in the family business.

It's jarring when the characters in the movie live through 9/11. That would really seem like an irrelevancy, and it would be morally wrong to use that infamous date as a mere element in cheap melodrama. But this isn't cheap melodrama and 9/11 has some significance; the FBI boys are still running around chasing prostitutes even after the attack, its horrific aftermath and the fact that it reflects scandalously inept intelligence work.

"I love what I do," Jeanette says of her job at one point. "I'm not hurting anyone. . . . I let men unwind and feel good about themselves." She'd be a good public relations rep for prostitution, but it seems to be doing all right without one.

The Madam's Family: The Truth About Canal Street Brothel (two hours) airs tonight at 9 on Channel 9.

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